91.7 Ann Arbor/Detroit 104.1 Grand Rapids 91.3 Port Huron 89.7 Lansing 91.1 Flint
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

The teeny, tiny ingredient that could add up to a big problem for the Great Lakes

Microbeads on a penny.
Courtesy of The 5 Gyres Institute

Ever seen a commercial for a face scrub or body wash that promises to “polish” your skin with “micro-beads?”

Or maybe one of the hundreds of these products already sits in your shower.

Ever wonder what those little beads are?

Chances are pretty good they’re plastic. And once they circle your drain and go down your pipes, chances are also pretty good they’re not going to get filtered out by your city’s sewage treatment plant.

Millions of tiny beads that look a lot like fish food

A team of scientists spent the last two summers trawling the Great Lakes looking for “micro-plastic” pollution.

“Eighty percent of the plastics that we pulled out of the Great Lakes in 2012 were little particles that were less than a millimeter in diameter,” said environmental chemist Sherri Mason.“And 60 percent of those were these perfectly round spherical beads of plastic, and those are the ones we suspect are coming from these consumer products like facial washes, bodywashes, toothpaste.”

Mason teaches at the State University of New York at Fredonia. She says further research is showing that the plastics are migrating into the food chain.

“The impact it’s having is a much bigger question, and one that’s going to take longer to answer,” she said.

Research in the Great Lakes is pretty new. But Mason says studies of oceanic organisms have shown that these plastics are working their way up the food chain, and the effect on some of these littler creatures isn’t good. Some small organisms eat the plastic and feel full, so they stop eating and starve. There are also less direct effects when the chemicals in the plastics leach into the organisms that eat them.

Some manufacturers promise phaseout

Recently, some big-name manufacturers, including Proctor & Gamble and Johnson & Johnson have promised to phase the plastics out of their personal care products. But advocacy groups like 5 Gyres, with which Dr. Mason works, are concerned about the potentially long timeline for those voluntary phaseouts. So they’re pushing for state legislation to ban the sale of products that contain the beads. The group says trying to get rid of the beads after they’re already in the water is not the way to go.

“It’s so enmeshed within all the living organisms in the lake, it’s very difficult for me to imagine that it’s going to be possible to pull out the plastic without impacting, in a negative way, the ecosystem that is the Great Lakes,” said Mason.

A bill in the Michigan legislature to ban the sale of products containing micro-beads was introduced in September. So far it hasn’t gotten a hearing.

Here’s a video from 5 Gyres that highlights their work on the micro-plastic issue:


Sarah Hulett is Michigan Radio’s Director of Amplify & Longform, helping reporters to do their best work.
Related Content